On July 11 Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) gave a speech in the US Senate denouncing funding of global warming denying scientists and publicists and related think tanks by fossil fuel companies and related interests. I am not going to comment on that for the simple reason that some of these people and their political allies claim that those arguing there is global warming are also receiving funding from biased sources in a public choice sort of manner. Rather I think that people's arguments should be judged on their own grounds, not on who is or is not funding the research.
As it is, Warren's speech has triggered some very bizarre and extreme discussion in various quarters of the internet, especially by libertarians unhappy with her. Among the claims floating around on Facebook and elsewhere of demanding that the people she criticized should serve jail time. This claim is simply false, she said nothing along such lines. Probably the source of these claims is that she was speaking in favor of a bill (that will not pass) to investigate funding by entities such as Exxon Mobil of research that questions global warming when their own internal data agrees that there is global warming and likely due to human actions. But this is against these companies, not the scientists and individuals involved. As it is I want to look at what she did say and how it relates to the latest developments in the ongoing arguments over global warming.
(BTW, I prefer this older terminology, which indeed highlights the central issue, with "climate change" being a misleading and frankly stupid label, given that climate is always changing. The question is how and why and in what direction is it changing, apologies to all who have gotten all into saying "climate change" when what they really mean is "global warming." (and, yes, I know that overall global warming coincides with cooling in certain specific locations, tough))
Sen.Warren spent quite a lot of time on the general issue of funding by fossil fuel companies, but in the end her specific comments focused on two individuals and one think tank, the Science and Public Policy Institute (which called the "Institute for Science and Public Policy"). In fact she did not talk about its funding (which is obscure, although it is thought that Exxon Mobil has provided some), but in fact focused more on the two individuals, both of whom have served as Science Adviser of the institute. Both are prominent global warming deniers, but differ substantially from each other despite agreeing broadly on the climate issue.
The first is Willie Soon, an aeronautical engineer who has published articles in seriously respectable climatology journals, even if very controversial articles. In recent years he has received over a million US $ in funding from fossil fuel companies and related sources, and Warren highlighted this. But I think the real question is why he has been unable to get funding from more conventional sources, a point that his supporters would say is due to prejudice and bias against his views by those sources, a reason why I do not want to focus just on these sources. So, what is Soon's argument?
He is probably the leading advocate of the idea that most changes in average global temperature are driven by changes in solar radiance, which is thought to be strongly correlated with sunspots, ironically, that more sunspots indicate more radiance and hence higher average global temperatures. He made this argument in a major paper published in Climate Research in 2003. This paper triggered a lot of controversy, including at the journal, where members of the editorial board resigned over its publication. However, this is not a simple matter. For one thing, it is widely accepted that there probably is a relation between more sunspots and higher global temperatures, with the low sunspot activity and the global cooling during the "Maunder Minimum" period in the late 1600s and early 1700s and example, with Soon writing a book about this. The problem has been with his claim (along with several coauthors) that this is little input from human activities, with the solar flux being the major driving force, including right now.
This is where Soon has gotten into trouble with serious scientists who accept that there probably is this relation between solar radiance/sunspots and global temperature. What has happened since 2003? Well in fact we have been seeing a noticeably lower level of sunspots, which according to Soon's view should lead to global cooling. Now indeed it may have had such an effect, with this possibly explaining the slowdown in the rate of average global temperature increase that occurred during 2003-2009 or so. Of course some global warming deniers made much of this slowdown and even said it might turn into outright cooling.
But here is the rub, to the extent this slowdown in sunspots was leading to more cooling, it did not fully offset the global temperature trend. Something else kept it going up, even if more slowly for a few years. The obvious main factor is human activity, especially further accumulations of greenhouse gases. Then we have what has happened in more recent years: global average temperature increase has re-accelerated to a dramatic level. Soon's sunspot effect has simply been completely swamped. This has led to a complete collapse in any support for his broader argument among most climate scientists. It is no wonder that he is unable to get any funding from conventional sources.
Then we come to the other individual, and on this one I think Warren has him dead to rights, although with him funding sources are not the main issue. We are talking about Christopher Monckton, Third Viscount of Brenchley, former Director of Research for the UK Independence Party, and Soon's successor as Science Adviser at the Science Institute for Public Policy. Lord Monckton has testified three times before US congressional committees on global climate issues, usually following the arguments of Soon, with at least one congressman (according to Warren) declaring him to be the "world's leading expert" on these issues. Oh, serious gag.
For starters, unlike Soon, he has zero scientific credentials to discuss any of this in any serious way other than as a gasbag publicist and PR propagandist. His academic degrees are in classics and journalism. He has been around and has had quite a history on many things, most of which are irrelevant to this point. But something that may not be irrelevant is that he is a major fraud and charlatan. He has repeatedly claimed to be a "member of the House of Lords" in Britain. Well, he is not. He is a peer due to inheritance from his late father, but since 1999 peers by inheritance are not automatically members of the House of Lords, and indeed the vast majority are not,although some are. He is among those who are not.
Regarding his discussions of climate issues, he has engaged in extreme rhetoric regarding scientists who disagree with them. He is a conspiracy theorist charging them with seeking a "totalitarian world government" and also being akin to "Hitler Youth." This sort of stuff is standard for hysterical Fox News commentators and radio hacks, but is completely unacceptable in scientific discourse. Apparently he accepts that humans do generate gases that tigger a greenhouse effect, but like Soon he argues that this is unimportant, and that "global warming is a myth."
Let me note that not all "climate contrarians" are in the same pile of poop that Soon and Monckton are. Thus we have Patrick Michaels who directs climate research at the libertarian Cato Institute. Michaels, whom I have known for more than 40 years, has published in journals such as Nature and Science and has made serious criticisms of details of widely used climate models. Despite that he has long accepted that global warming is happening and that human activity is substantially contributing to it. However, he has long argued that the rate of temperature increase will probably not be as great as the mean forecasts of the main international groups, and he has also gone further to argue based on his libertarian position that the costs of actions are likely to outweigh the benefits. Evidence from the last few years suggest that he may be wrong about the temperature projections, although anything can happen and he might yet be proved right. As for the bottom line policy issue, I have long pointed out to him that he is a climatologist and not an economist and should probably stick to that (I recognize that there are serious and ongoing debates over exactly what should be done).
As for all these weird and paranoid charges that Warren (or others) are seeking to put Soon and Monckton (and others?) in jail, this appears to come from Sheldon Whitehouse calling for lawsuits against the major companies involved in funding global warming denying research. But lawsuits do not imply jail time. I suspect that the source of this is from the behavior of their own allies, in particular, Senator James Inhofe. In 2010, when emails by Michael Mann and James Hanson were hacked leading to the "Climategate" rhumba that supposedly showed plots and conspiracies to bias scientific research, Innhofe called for the US Department of Justice investigate bringing criminal charges against them. That could have meant jail time for them, but nothing came of that. I also note that following all this former Virginia Attorney General Cuccinelli, who ran for governor, brought a suit against the University of Virginia for emails that Michael Mann had sent when he was on its faculty, supposedly to expose all this awful plotting. His suit failed in court.
So my bottom line is that the libertarians all freaked out that Warren is out to put them or their friends in jail are simply projecting the behavior of their own allies, especially Sen. Inhofe, who really did make efforts to jail their opponents, even when the only crime that seems to have happened in that case was the hacking of their emails, not that anybody was ever caught or charged in that matter.